High Museum of Art: Films

Review: Oblivion by Linda Dubler
July 24, 2009, 2:19 pm
Filed under: Film Series: High, Review | Tags: , ,

This film will show Saturday, September 26 at 8 p.m. as part of  the High Museum of Art’s  Latin American Film Festival.

Child acrobat in Oblivion

Heddy Honigmann’s films are so direct and so deftly understated that their artistry is almost invisible. Devoid of attention grabbing compositions and passionate rhetoric, her sublime, humanistic documentaries are modest but perfectly balanced, quiet but penetrating and immensely moving.

Honigmann is interested in big ideas like memory, justice, and art, but in her films they’re never abstractions. Her movies are stories about the people we pass by every day, people whose lives we never plumb because we don’t have the curiosity, the eye and the quiet fearlessness that allows Honigmann to find the poet and performer in the men, women and children who populate her work.
Oblivion, Honigmann’s latest, is her second film shot in Lima, Peru, where she was born the daughter of Holocaust survivors in 1951. Though she’s now based in the Netherlands and works internationally, Honigmann seems entirely at home on Lima’s teeming streets where acrobats perform at crosswalks and then beg for change amid the idling cars, musicians entertain, and vendors hawk everything from fancy dresses for Barbie dolls to tiny sewing kits. These choked avenues run through the film; lit up and alive, they are a public stage for the poor and the enterprising.

The private spaces of the film are the luxe restaurants and bars where the rich take refuge, and the more modest shops, cafes and homes of those who serve them. The people who mix the drinks and polish the glasses, who wait at the table and shine shoes, embroider the sashes that adorn a succession of corrupt presidents, and repair the briefcases that hold their stolen wads of cash — they are Heddy Honigmann’s lead actors, and her film belongs to them.

Waiter Luis Cerna

Luis Cerna, Waiter

Jorge is a mixologist and teacher who can make a delicious Pisco Sour while offering a scathing assesment of the recent elections, “Which would you prefer, Hepatitis B or AIDS?” he asks. “We Peruvians chose Hepatitis B, otherwise known as Alan Garcia. The very man who ruined the country between ’85 and ’90.” He schools his students about the value of smiling service and dedication, telling them “We’re not servants, we’re being paid.  We are the actors of the private sector.” With his wisdom and pride, one can’t help but think that he would make a better leader than the thieves and fools who have occupied the presidential palace, seen periodically in clips of their swearing-in ceremonies.

According to Daniel, whose family has made fancy sashes for a parade  of presidents, even figuring out how to wear this item without turning it inside out has proved to be too much of a challenge for some.

Then there’s Mauro, whose “clinic” for broken handbags and suitcases is across the way from the leader’s home.  He’s weathered devaluations and dictatorships and still seems forgiving as he observes, “The Palace is a place of privilege, an island of happiness surrounded by Peru on all sides.” Others featured in the film may not comment directly on Peru’s benighted history, but when we see how hard they work, how little they have, and with what grace and humor they approach the future, we cannot help but share the filmmakers ire and admiration.

Che, Contact Juggler

Che, Contact Juggler

Oblivion is a state of being impervious, without memories. It is the sad plight of a young shoeshine boy whose spirit is so defeated that he tells Honigmann that he has no memories, good or bad, and no dreams. It is the punishment visited upon the Peruvian people by politicians who learn nothing from the past and make a mockery of governing. Oblivion is the condition to which much of Latin America is consigned, as the the director points out in a statement she wrote for the film: “In Oblivion, Lima represents all other Latin American cities, whose seas or mountains are graveyards. Horror is omnipresent: In its streets, bars, hospitals and neighborhoods. But the country isn’t “hot”  news. Reminiscence is a recurring theme in almost all of my films. With Oblivion, I wanted to create a poetic celebration of this forgotten city and its people.” And so, with enormous tenderness, she has.

Linda Dubler

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